On the Origin of Ethics

Facebook note from September 2010.

What is the central concept of ethics? There are two answers to this question: Immanuel Kant makes “duty” the central concept; Ayn Rand makes “value” the central concept. This, in a nutshell, explains why Objectivists cannot stand Kant; it also explains why so many people cannot stand Ayn Rand; they are simply too steeped in a deontological view of ethics (and Kant was not the only deontologist in the history of philosophy).

How do Rand and Kant arrive at those widely diverging fundamental concepts? I do not know about Kant – he seems to have simply taken it for granted – but Ayn Rand tells us. I won’t repeat her derivation of “value” from “life”, because you are already familiar with it. But she also has something to say about the formation of the concept “value” in a child:

Now, in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are the first step in the realm of evaluation. (From “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Does this sound like hedonism? Well, we know Ayn Rand was “profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism”. And we know why: pleasure could not possibly be a standard of value. Neither could happiness: one’s own happiness is the proper goal of morality, but it is not the standard.

But “life as the standard” is too abstract for a small child to grasp. For one thing, the child does not yet know about death, and so cannot grasp the fundamental alternative of “life or death”. It only knows “pleasure or pain” and can then proceed to the slightly more abstract “happiness or suffering”.

An implication of this is that a child starts out as a hedonist: “pleasure” is the implicit standard. As his knowledge grows, he becomes an eudaemonist: “happiness” becomes the implicit standard. And finally, when he grasps that it all has its roots in the alternative of “life or death”, he becomes an Objectivist. (But he probably would have to read Ayn Rand to arrive at this stage.) And from this it would also seem that hedonism is closer to the truth than a deontological ethics.

How would a child form a deontological or “duty-centered” ethics?

What is “duty”? Essentially it is obedience to some authority. For a small child, the authority would be his parents, so it is his duty to obey them. Later come the duty to one’s country, or to God, or whatever. (Immanuel Kant would object to this and say it is a matter of obeying one’s own conscience – but to untangle this, I would have to write an essay on Kant’s distinction between the “noumenal” and the “phenomenal” self.)

Now, children do obey their parents (and later their school teachers) to a large extent. And so long as parents and teachers are rational, I see no harm in this. To use a phrase from Cesar Millan (“the dog whisperer”), children, as well as dogs, need “rules, boundaries and limitations”. The child will discover on his own the reasons for those rules, boundaries and limitations; and he will object to them only if and when he finds something wrong with them. (Of course, this last point is not applicable to dogs.) (And it goes without saying that the matter is very different, if or when parents and teachers are irrational.)

The reason I started thinking about this is that somebody recommended that I read Jean Piaget. I have read one of his essays, though unfortunately in a Swedish translation, so I cannot give any quotes. But the point is that Piaget writes that “pleasures” and “duties” sometimes conflict; and if I understand him correctly, he thinks that “duty” takes precedence over “pleasure”; it is a sign of maturity in a child when he subordinates a temporary pleasure to some duty. This is hardly the Objectivist view…

Piaget spent most of his life studying the cognitive development of children and adolescents and developed an extensive and rather complex theory about it. It was based, as all good theories should, on observation. This “pleasure/duty” clash is one such observation. But it is hard to reconcile with Ayn Rand’s view. But she might answer that it is actually a clash between “short-term pleasure” and “long-term happiness”. An example of this is that it may be painful to go to the dentist; but we do it anyway, since not doing it will impede our future happiness.

Some further observations

(Added 2016.)

In the period preceding Kant, it was customary among rights philosophers to distinguish between three kinds of duties: duties to God, to society (or one’s fellow human beings) and to oneself.[1] Immanuel Kant, to the best of my knowledge, makes no such distinction.

Kant famously argued that man has a duty to preserve his life, even (and especially) when life has become so painful as to be unbearable. Is this a duty to God? Why should God even care, unless he were a sadist? Is it a duty to one’s fellow men? But why would they want you to suffer? Is it a duty to oneself? Hardly. No, it is just duty for the sake of duty, with no visible beneficiary.

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A famous Objectivist once said in a courtroom speech:

Man’s first duty is to himself.

He obviously had not read Ayn Rand’s essay “Causality versus Duty”, where she dismisses the very concept of duty.[2]

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Aristotle’s ethics if of course value-centered, in that it has a specific aim: the achievement of ευδαιμονια, i.e. happiness or flourishing. There is no talk in Aristotle about obedience to some authority, whether outer or inner. The same of course is true about any form of eudaemonism or hedonism.

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Once a long time ago I saw the objection to Objectivism, from an academic philosopher, that there is no duty to act egoistically, just as there is no duty to act altruistically. Abysmal ignorance about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Or are we to assume that there is a duty to pursue values? That we should pursue them because some outer or inner authority has commanded us to pursue them?


[1] See for example Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (or On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law  in English), published in 1673.

[2] I am referring of course to Howard Roark. Don’t take the words “famous Objectivist” too seriously!